When the puck was dropped at 7:38 p.m. between the Penguins and Thrashers, Pittsburgh was looking to put the skids to a five-game losing streak. Giving up 11 of the first 12 shots in the hockey game was not the best way to go about reversing their fortunes but rather than wilt this resilient team road the hot goaltending of Brent Johnson
and two Jordan Staal
goals to a 5-2 victory over Atlanta.
Johnson was brilliant between the pipes, slamming the door on all 16 first-period shots and finishing the night with 31 saves on 33 Atlanta shots. In his most recent start in New Jersey on Dec. 30 he made 31 saves but suffered the hard-luck 2-0 loss to the Devils.
“A real great game for Brent,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “He played a real strong game in New Jersey and didn’t get the win. (Tuesday night), especially early on when they had those 11 shots, it was big to have some great saves.
“And not only the saves but he was confident in there and it looked like he was going to be real solid and allow his team a chance to get back in it. That is exactly what he did.”
As great as Johnson was in goal, Staal was every bit as good at the opposite end. He used his 6-foot-4 frame all night to win battles both offensively and defensively and created many great chances for both he and his linemates. Over his past three games Staal now has five points (2G-3A) as he continues to show Hockey Canada that he is deserving of joining teammates Sidney Crosby
and Marc-Andre Fleury
in Vancouver for the Olympic Games if one of the Canadians’ offensive stars gets hurt between now and then.
“Obviously, I feel more comfortable offensively,” Staal said. “I’m just trying to keep my game steady. I got to contribute a little bit tonight, and I got a couple of goals.”
“You see the way he skates in the middle of the ice with speed and power,” Bylsma said. “He is winning battles defensively. In the offensive zone he is playing some of the best hockey of his career. His numbers prove it. They prove it because he has been playing the right way.”
Johnson and Staal were far from the only Penguins whose inspired play gave the team a chance to win. To a man they had talked for much of the past week how it was going to take an entire team effort to get the team back on track rather than one or two guys carrying the squad.
That was exactly what happened on this night.
Nine different players, including Johnson, found their names on the score sheet, led by Staal’s three points and multiple-point efforts off the sticks of Ruslan Fedotenko (1G-1A) and Tyler Kennedy
(2A). The defense even got into the scoring act as Kris Letang
began the scoring for the Penguins by walking down the slot 39 seconds into the second period and firing a blistering wrist shot between the wickets of Atlanta netminder Ondrej Pavelec.
“Yeah, I felt like everybody played well – even the people who didn’t score,” Ruslan Fedotenko said. “The goaltending was unbelievable.”
What was believable about this contest was the way the Penguins returned to their early-season form of wearing a team down throughout the course of the game and then taking over physically and on the scoreboard during the latter stages of the second period and into the final frame. After Atlanta rang up that early 11-1 shots advantage it was all Pittsburgh as they outshot the Thrashers 36-22 after that.
“Everyone played their best hockey,” Staal said. “I thought, again, we kept it simple. We didn’t turn the puck over a whole lot. We played in their end a lot more. When you’re doing those things, you can finally win games.
Yeah, I felt like everybody played well – even the people who didn’t score. The goaltending was unbelievable. - Ruslan Fedotenko
“I thought in the first period when they came out pretty hard off the bat that we weathered out a bit, and we got to our game more and more. By the third period, I thought we dominated it.”
One of the reasons the Penguins were able to lift the sails right out from under Atlanta was the way they responded each time the Thrashers got back in the hockey game. During their five-game losing stretch the Penguins seemed to sink into a funk and allow the opposition to take over, whether the Penguins still had the lead at the time or found themselves trailing.
They didn’t settle for staying down on Tuesday, but instead pushed the gas down even further each time the Thrashers got on the board. Jim Slater, who had both Atlanta goals, tied the game, 1-1, just 2:18 after Letang’s goal, but tallies from Staal and Fedotenko gave the Penguins a two-goal lead at 3-1.
Slater added a second goal late in the second period to get the Thrashers within one score but a sensational play by Evgeni Malkin
set Luca Caputi up with an empty cage 8:32 into the third period and the Penguins once again had a two-goal lead. Staal’s second goal of the night would provide the final margin.
Fedotenko was proud of the way the Penguins answered each Atlanta goal.
“Yeah, I felt like nobody hanged their heads or anything like that,” he said. “We just regrouped, and it was not a big deal.”
After the game a happy locker room rejoiced at once again being able to celebrate after a game instead of answering questions about losing. Letang was proud of the way he and his teammates overcame some early jitters and said the next step is playing the same type of game again on Thursday night when the Philadelphia Flyers invade Mellon Arena.
“We came out a little bit nervous I think,” Letang said. “We weren’t playing too confident at the beginning. We built it up with some good plays and a good power play. We just have to build on that and not change anything for the next game.”